For Günter!

Stefanie Peter, the artistic director of Büro Kopernikus and Hortensia Völckers, artistic director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation provide us with an insight into their work of inspiring cross-border cultural initiatives; it is constantly evolving and never boring.

At the formation of the German Federal Cultural Foundation in 2002, the Minister of Culture, Julian Nida-Rümelin expressed the wish that it should play a role complementary to the institutions which already existed. It was not about creating new forms for the event business, but about attracting international discussions to Germany. To what extent does Büro Kopernikus fulfil this assignment set by the politicians?

Hortensia Völckers: When a foundation is first formed there is a fascinating opportunity to define the tasks and the goals of the future work for the first time. The purpose of the Federal Cultural Foundation is to promote an innovative programme and cultural projects in an international context. Within this, Central and Eastern Europe are a focal area. Of course it can’t only be our job to present German culture abroad, as the Goethe Institute has been doing successfully for decades. The Federal Cultural Foundation is more interested in experimenting with different forms of cultural exchange between countries over a certain period of time. Büro Kopernikus has brought many German cultural organisations and creative people into contact with Poland for the very first time, so that they can work artistically together. This is a new approach. Naturally, we’d like to think that Büro Kopernikus is just the start of a process through which longer term working relationships will develop between German and Polish artists.

Stefanie Peter: In effect, cultural exchanges have been taking place between Germany and Poland since the 1960s. Seen in light of the oppressive history the two countries share, this is quite an achievement.­­ There are programmes for school exchange visits, stipends for Polish artists, tours of Poland by German Orchestras. Even so, in Germany, Polish culture continues to be viewed from a historical perspective.

And what can be seen from that perspective?

Stefanie Peter: Well, essentially that means Polish jazz, poster art, literature and now and then a Kieslowski retrospective. There is plenty of contemporary Polish culture available; it just hasn’t been taken fully on board yet by the German public. Berlin is certainly an exception but Poland doesn’t yet have a particularly high standing in other German cities. Apart from this, German-Polish cultural contacts are almost completely focussed on Warsaw. What happens anywhere else is hardly noticed. Poland is a centralised country. So we thought, ‘let’s try something different.’ Our goal was to find the culturally creative individuals in provincial areas such as Gdansk and Bytom; those who are working outside the scope of the official exchanges; people bringing other visions and Utopias into their artistic activities and who are searching for new forms of expression.

How have you found these people? How have the artistic projects come into being?

Stefanie Peter: It was very important for our work that we could rely on the help of an expert committee established by the German Federal Cultural Foundation; this involved both German and Polish representatives form a variety of cultural fields. This committee developed perspectives for the German-Polish cultural exchanges and proposed projects which were then carried forward by Büro Kopernikus. The focus was on areas such as contemporary pictorial art or the culture of electronic media which has developed quite dynamically over the last few years. There have been numerous trips with intensive research on location to find answers to questions like: What artistic institute in Germany might work well with the Art Society “X” in Poland? Or, which artists could be interesting for our work? This was all about getting to know the structures of the relevant institutions and networking individual artists and actual projects. The most important thing was that the programme was always developed by Poles and Germans together.

Hortensia Völckers: This process is central to the way the Federal Cultural Foundation works. It’s not the case that we simply produce a ready-made programme from our pockets. Instead we rather give the impulse and then mediate in a cultural process. When the advisory board of the Foundation decides it wants us to work with Poland, we then gather a group of experts together who then develop the programme; we accompany the collaboration, but we do not direct it. It involves a lot of work, but it also ensures the freedom in which the artists can work. This is something really special: the Federal Cultural Foundation is a representative body close to the state and, the same time, it as near as it can get to the artistic world.

The work done by Büro Kopernikus consciously aims to develop a dialogue between culturally active German and Polish people. How has this offer been received?

Stefanie Peter: First of all, I should say that the years of Büro Kopernikus have coincided with some defining years for German-Polish relations: there was EU membership for Poland as well as the “German-Polish Year”; the Polish Pope died and was followed by a German; a controversial exhibition on the population expulsions was hotly debated, the so-called “potato affair”; there was Günter Grass’ confession. Events and debates such as these have also left their mark on the cultural field and have been taken up and addressed within our projects. Naturally, we can not hope to resolve the German-Polish dislocations purely through cultural endeavours, but there is one thing we have certainly succeeded in achieving: through our activities, the German cultural “industry” has turned its attention to Poland, often for the first time. That also includes the large theatres, galleries and institutions.

That doesn’t say much for the curiosity of the Germans; Poland has been on the German border for quite a long time now.

Stefanie Peter: No doubt many people involved in the cultural field tend only to look west. It’s time that some of them began to turn around now and look the other way. But one has to understand, too, that there is a lot of competition between the different cultural activities on offer in Germany, and the public here is still reserved in their reaction to exhibitions and visiting performances from Eastern Europe. That is why we consciously focus on the working relationships between cultural institutions. If the cooperation intensifies, and there are more joint projects, they will also be better received in Germany.

Hortensia Völckers: Without doubt, Büro Kopernikus has done a lot of pioneering work. In “the East”, they are now well aware who the important artists of the moment are over here, and which productions are successful. In “the West”, it is different. Many people still aren’t ready to see what interesting work is emerging the East. On top of this is the fact that art is closely related to people’s readiness to invest in it; in Eastern Europe, with the exception of Russia, there are hardly any large-scale collectors. The problem of theatre, on the other hand, is that there are simply different aesthetic sensibilities that the public here first needs to be ready for.

Stefanie Peter: Another reason why people take less notice is the fact that, in Germany, the past and Poland are always necessarily a heavy topic. This means that today’s cultural life in Poland and the rapid developments taking place in society tend to get obscured. That’s why we have decided to produce an unusual Glossary of Poland - from A for Aristocracy, to Z for Zwillinge (Twins) - which should be available from next year to bring modern Poland closer to the German readers.

How much interest was there in Poland for the various projects?

Stefanie Peter: Many events have met with a sensational level of interest amongst the public. There were countless reports and discussions in the media, from the smallest provincial newspapers to the national magazines and papers. That is remarkable, as the projects were mostly located away from the mainstream of the Berlin-Warsaw axis. In Gdansk, for example, we staged a project in architectural history, “Unloved Heritage”, which took a stance against the widespread image of the Hanseatic city state by looking more closely at the contemporary architecture of Gdansk which is soften ignored. In 2005, “Radio Copernicus” broadcast a series of German, Polish and English language programmes from towns on both sides of the border, such as Stralsund and Wroclaw. Büro Kopernikus has also held an exhibition about the Oder River region, as well as workshops on modern dance and electronic music.

A workshop on electronic music: isn’t that more suitable for the dance floor?

Stefanie Peter: Well, that’s where it has ended up. In Bytom - the city which used to be called Beuthen. This is now home to a fascinating electronic music scene which was celebrated vibrantly in our project 'Elektropopklub'. Apart from this, however, Bytom has been facing the legacy of the industrial period. German partners were invited to share their experiences from the Ruhr Valley region, where today all the coal mines have become cultural arenas of one kind or another. Cooperation with German cultural institutions has also done a lot for new Polish art galleries and centres. On the other hand, we Germans can undoubtedly learn a great deal from the new style of independent, non-state initiatives which now characterise the Polish scene. (The social state - which still provides quite a lot to the arts in Germany - disappeared in Poland overnight.) That’s what makes it good to see how individual projects have taken root. Some collaborations have developed into sustained relationships.

Hortensia Völckers: We view that as especially important. We wanted Büro Kopernikus to be a way of building up longer term working relationships in the German-Polish arts scene. From our ideas and initial impulses, concepts and viable collaborations should develop. Our goal was to stimulate sustainable cooperation between artists and relevant institutions, which can survive thereafter without the assistance of Büro Kopernikus. The kind of cultural exchange which Büro Kopernikus supports does run the risk that the projects fail to integrate into the respective institutions. We don’t simply give money to a German theatre here or a Polish art society there; we support artists and people involved in the arts who in turn make the decisions about who meets whom and how. In some senses, it’s a miracle that we can work this way.

A miracle?

Hortensia Völckers: Yes. It isn’t only in Eastern Europe that many partners don’t understand why we are using German tax-payers’ money to support projects, for example, in Poland with both Polish and German artists. The intention is not simply to put German culture in the spotlight, it is also a form of open experimentation which should inspire curiosity for the neighbours and point the way to the future. You have to see it this way: it is an incredibly generous and, at the same time, incredibly modern position the German state has taken. And we get to know a lot about ourselves through the dialogue with our neighbours.

Stefanie Peter: And in the case of Büro Kopernikus, I think that we have contributed much to the future of this dialogue. From the start it was our wish to provide a forum for the younger generation of people involved in the arts, those born in the 1980s and for whom the Cold War and the Solidarity era are just history. These artists already think in international terms, they are well informed about the most recent artistic developments and they speak English or German proficiently. In this respect, the themes which were formulated together in the German-Polish projects often have a fully European perspective. Such artists live in the present, play with the future; they’re not interested in just processing the past again. It was significant that in Poland as well as here in Germany, the debate around Günter Grass was conducted by an older generation. A young artist in Gdansk has just written a “Composition for 100 Kilogram’s of Potatoes and a Tape-recorder”. The title is a dedication to Grass: “For Günter”. This ironic way of addressing contemporary issues is characteristic of a new tone in the arts in Poland. And as long as we are watching a young generation discovering its own forms, we may be sure that it is contemporary art that we are seeing.

Tobias Asmuth asked the questions, a freelance journalist and political editor at, the youth magazine of the Federal Agency for Civic Education.
Büro Kopernikus was initiated by the German Federal Cultural Foundation and took place between 2004 and 2006

Deutsch-Polnische Excursionen
Stefanie Peter, künstlerische Leiterin von Büro Kopernikus im Gespräch mit Ewa Strozczynska-Wille